Tift Merritt blasted out her fine new album Stitch of the World in just four days, which makes it the quickest studio record the North Carolina singer-songwriter has ever made, by far. While that was partly dictated by circumstances of finances and what players were available when, it worked so well that Merritt is beginning to swear by the first-thought/best-thought method.
“Creative limitations are very important,” Merritt says. “I’m a practical woman and the real world is my door into what I do. Some people are better dreamers, and not seeing limitations is an unbelievable gift. But that’s not me … There is a sort of looseness to this record, which is something I’ve wanted to get for a long time. But not loose like a bar band. More like Bonnie Raitt’s first record, which I’ve been singing my whole life.”
Merritt’s supporting cast on Stitch includes Marc Ribot and lap-steel specialist Eric Heywood on guitars, with a rhythm section made up of drummer Jay Bellerose and bassist Jennifer Condos – spectral six-string sounds above, steady rolling rhythms below. But Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam is the biggest influence of all, as co-producer, backup singer and all-around sounding board.
“Sam and I connected at a point where I really had no perspective on what I was writing,” Merritt says. “I sent him a bunch of songs, he listened to them all and he called up and said he could tell I’d been working really hard. That was the best day ever. When I’m writing in the moment, only time can bring perspective. But I knew I was safe because I had Sam listening. He is the most gracious, kind human I know and a great musician.”
Additional inspiration came from the late, great short-story writer Raymond Carver, whose poem “Where Water Comes Together With Other Water” Merritt adapted into the Stitch song “My Boat.” But even more of the album’s tales came from real life. Stitch arrives in the midst of an eventful stretch for Merritt, who moved back to her old North Carolina stomping grounds and became a mother for the first time last year.
She was also in the midst of the emotional fallout from the end of her marriage to longtime drummer and partner Zeke Hutchins. As the title of one song puts it, “Heartache Is an Uphill Climb” – followed a few songs later by “Love Soldiers On.”
“I’ve always written about things I’m deeply, personally tied to, but maybe not so obviously before. What was it Hemingway said: ‘There are no metaphors.’ As I’ve grown up and grown older, I’ve learned more about the ability to tap into yourself. There’s a sense of power in that,” she says. “But at the same time, I pray it’s not just a journal entry that won’t stand on its own.”
To be sure, “Heartache Is an Uphill Climb” is a relatable bit of often uncomfortable introspection. And the song’s video, directed by Gary Hawkins, follows suit, thrusting Merritt into action she wanted no part of – a Christmas parade in North Carolina.
“Gary is one of those people who sees more potential than what’s in the regular world,” Merritt says of their guerilla style of filmmaking. “He had me crashing this parade and was pushing me into the marching band and pom-pom girls. I was protesting the whole time that I didn’t want to be arrested.”
Rest assured, Merritt is a free woman – she’ll release Stitch of the World on January 27th.